Welcome to the latest instalment in our D&B Body Stories series. I had such a brilliant conversation with Claudine who lives and swims in Brighton. In fact, I felt like I was enthusiastically nodding in agreement for the majority of our phone call as she talked articulately about the obstacles facing women and the wide-reaching impact of poor body image on a woman’s life.
I first set up Deakin and Blue after learning about the barriers that body image presented to women trying to enjoy water. Did you know that over half a million women have given up swimming in the last 10 years because of body image concerns? That one in two mums are put off taking their child to learnt to swim for the same reasons?
Every day women are stopped from participating in sport and in life because of how they feel about their bodies. At D&B, addressing this is a guiding mission of ours, and underpins everything we do. So it was absolutely brilliant to speak with such a like-minded woman who has recently pivoted her own career to also help women get comfortable in their own skin – and in doing so, feel more empowered across their entire lives.
Having learned from her own body image journey, Claudine talks about the difference between ‘body acceptance’ and ‘body positivity’. Enjoy this brilliant conversation.
Claudine, tell us a bit about you.
I live in Hove by the sea and I’m a mum of two, a wife and a fairly recent doggy mum! I’m an avid sea swimmer and dipper. I first discovered cold water swimming over three years ago when I went in the sea in March (the coldest time of year to start sea swimming!) – I’ve not looked back since. I’ve swum year-round for the last three years and it has had a hugely positive impact on me and my life.
Around the same time that I started sea swimming I was also experiencing a real change in my body image, which I define as how I think and feel about my body. (By coincidence this was also around the time that I first met you, Rosie and came across Deakin and Blue.) This was a shift in how I saw myself physically and so the two journeys – body image and sea swimming – have dovetailed for me.
Last year I changed my career to incorporate those two things. I had trained as a life coach a few years ago and started running events around body image: workshops, film screenings and so on in my spare time. Last year with Covid, my core business (which is around training) went quiet and so I decided to really follow my passion and support women who are on their own body image journeys. I help them work on their self-compassion and self-worth which is at the core of many women’s difficult relationship with their body, so that they can make friends with the mirror and find peace with their body. My business Seascape Blue can be found online, on Facebook and on Instagram.
I’m saddened by how many women are unhappy with their bodies and the impact this can have on their wider life. It’s not just about looking in the mirror, feeling sad and getting on with the day. Poor body image can affect every area of a woman’s life; relationships, career, social life. I use my skills to help women transform that connection and make peace with their body, and by default, truly accept themselves, so they can do all those things they are holding themselves back from.
Life is too short to wait until you’ve lost the weight or dropped the dress size before you allow yourself joy and pleasure. I find the term ‘body positivity’ has been slightly twisted by the diet industry and some “influencers”. Instead I prefer ‘body kindness’ and ‘body acceptance’. For me, it’s all about acknowledging what our bodies can do rather than what they look like. I find that when we learn to appreciate our bodies for what they are and can do, instead of zooming in on the bits that don’t look or work how we wish they would, we can also start to like how we look but more importantly, know we are worth so much more than that, by zooming out and seeing our bodies as a vehicle that enable us to live our lives.
And because of my love of sea swimming, I incorporate water, the sea and the use of blue spaces into my coaching in practice as a body image and blue health coach. So I coach in lakes, in the sea, or at the beach if the weather is too rough or if the client just wants to soak up the seascape while we explore what they wish to discuss. I work with people to help them overcome their fear of getting into the sea (if that is something they would like to do).
I often think of the statistics that you talk about at Deakin and Blue about women not going swimming because of how they feel in swimwear, and that is a perfect example for me of how body image is holding women back, from something I (and they might) find so joyous. So I might take a client who is a bit afraid of changing on a beach and work with them to overcome their body confidence issues which in turn empowers them to do any number of other things. Once you get yourself in the cold water, you feel invincible and can take on anything!
I work online as well, and with groups of women and to watch them supporting and empowering each other to fully embrace their bodies and themselves is just brilliant.
Tell me about your own body image journey. Do you have an early memory of your body image?
From being a child I remember having very short hair and often being mistaken for a boy which really bothered me. I was probably 9 or 10 and very preoccupied with how my face and hair looked. In my early teens I went through puberty and very quickly seemed to go from being quite boyish to suddenly growing boobs and having curves. Almost the opposite. Then I felt too curvy, too girly. People made fun of me for that. I was bullied for being fat even though, looking back, I can see I wasn’t. So I spent my teens and twenties and even into my thirties constantly being on the diet train. Yo-yoing, trying different things; all the diets, slimming pills, excessive exercise. Some things worked and then stopped working. There was a constant sense of “failure”.
I know now that diets don’t work and it wasn’t my fault: this is how the diet industry is worth billions, it tells us if only we tried harder and stuck to the diet for life, then we would achieve our goals. I spent far too much of my life wishing my body was different, smaller, and trying everything to shrink it. And this spilled out into other areas – not just my body – but thinking that I needed to be different in so many ways. Thinner, prettier, more outgoing. Now I embrace qualities in myself that I previously thought made me not good enough.
Then about five years ago I watched an Australian film called Embrace. A friend of mine had been to see it and recommended it to me. It completely opened my eyes to the idea that life doesn’t have to be like this. That we are allowed to stop dieting and start liking ourselves as we are. Interestingly in the film the key person has a real lightbulb moment where she goes from hating her body to loving it. I always say it wasn’t quite as instant for me: more like clicking on a dimmer switch.
The film, followed by a lot of self-development, counselling and coaching over the next few years enabled me to brighten that light and put some of those things into practice and start appreciating my body. No longer focusing on the flaws and what it can’t do but instead focusing on everything it could do. This coincided with my swimming journey: I took part in the Cold Water Swimming Championships at Tooting Bec Lido in 2018, swimming in 2-3 degree water. I got in twice. Later that year I did a 3.8km swim down the River Arun. And so slowly I started really appreciating what my body can do and what it enables me to do.
It’s years and years of learned thoughts and behaviours and patterns that need to change. And of course, we are still completely bombarded by these messages daily. The constant desire to be thinner (but not too thin), to have smooth skin, to be hairless, to have no scars, no stretch marks, no wrinkles. The constant imagery and language of diet culture, #fitspo stuff. And an entire beauty industry founded on the concept that if they tell us we are flawed, then they can sell us a product to fix ourselves.
So a lifetime of this messaging can’t be erased overnight. And even though I’ve been on my journey for some time I still have days where I don’t like what I see in the mirror, but the difference is I’m able to catch myself now. I can’t always flip the negative self-talk into a positive but I can make it neutral. I can walk away and not let it affect the rest of my day, the way it used to. I can still go to the beach, go for a swim, go on a date with my husband and so on.
Recently someone posted a photo of me on Instagram sat slumped in a camping chair. I didn’t like how I looked in the image and my instinct was to message the friend and ask her to remove it. But I stopped myself: how can I do that, I wondered, when I’m supporting women to accept themselves exactly as they are? And to value themselves beyond their physical appearance. It really hit me. And I felt hugely proud that I had noticed the behaviour, the instinct, and stopped myself acting on it. It may seem small but it is the culmination of small shifts like this that create the transformation in the women I work with to accepting their bodies and feeling empowered. I am honoured to do this work that my clients tell me has made such a life-changing impact on them.
Have there been significant life events that have affected your relationship with your body – for better or worse?
I did the very typical thing that, as women, many of us find ourselves under pressure to do, and lost a lot of weight for my wedding. In fact, when I got married I was the smallest I’d been since I was a teenager. It was 12 years ago and I felt really good about how I looked. But it was so unsustainable and at the cost of my mental health. I was on a really restrictive diet and obsessively exercising: five spin classes a week, working out until I felt sick – bullshit like that. I was probably on slimming pills too. I was obsessed with my looks.
All of that pressure for one day. But it was such real proof to me that you can reach your target weight or size and still not be happy, because although I achieved my ‘goal weight’ and my body was probably in a pretty healthy state, I had really compromised my mental health and other areas of my life. And of course, I got married and put the weight back on and then felt really upset about that.
Two years later I had my first baby and gave myself permission to eat what I wanted but still I was unhappy with how I looked. I had a second baby quickly after the first and never really lost the weight. I’ve been quite a lot heavier since my second baby and unhappy in that body for a long time. So I’ve tried to shrink it and change it – doing all those things we can find ourselves doing. I found breastfeeding painful and horrible but persisted because I was told it would help me to lose my baby weight (as well, of course, as knowing it was good for my children).
I look back now and wonder: what was I thinking, being motivated by that?! When as mothers our bodies have done the most miraculous thing; created, grown, birthed and fed a baby, we still care so much about how they look and are told we should be able to bounce back to our pre-baby shape. There are so many more important things we should be concentrating on at that time: nurturing our little one and taking care of ourselves in order to do that.
Over the last few years I can see I’m the biggest I’ve ever been but it’s also the period in which I’ve been most accepting of my body and also feeling so good mentally too.
What do you love about your body today?
I love everything that it lets me do - so many things that it’s so easy to take for granted. I am sat now at my kitchen table, looking out into the garden. Without my eyes I couldn’t see the plants and flowers; without my ears I couldn’t hear the birdsong; I can use my legs to walk out into the garden and stand in the green. Without my body I wouldn’t be able to do anything! My body allows me to experience the world, to move around, to travel and swim, to cuddle my loved ones, to dance.
I had a minor stroke last summer. It was quite a significant experience – although not as bad as it could have been. I lost the use of one side of my body for a few days before it came back. My recovery has been slow. But it has given me so much more gratitude and appreciation for what my body does and what it is really worth. I’m no longer going to let a soft tummy, cellulite and big thighs hold me back from living my life to the full. And this is the mindset shift I help my clients achieve, (hopefully without a dramatic health concern) so they can explore and live out their dreams. When my clients make those breakthroughs and push themselves out of their comfort zones to do something that they would have previously wanted to do but avoided, it is utterly heart-warming.
You came across D&B around the same time as you were at the beginning of your own body image journey. What do you like about the brand?
I discovered D&B when you (Rosie) did a talk on body image in Brighton with Alexandra Heminsley (and coincidentally, Alex’s book Leap In had inspired me to get in the sea), and Ella Foote (who’s energy I loved as soon as I met her). I loved the premise behind D&B and loved your swimsuits. I love the sustainability model of how and where they are made (from recycled fishing nets and in London), as I’ve discovered way more about pollution and the importance of protecting our oceans since I became a sea swimmer.
I also love Rosie’s story about why she created D&B, and the philosophy of giving different curve sizes such inspiring names. I meet a lot of women who feel ashamed at buying certain clothes sizes or having labels that say “XL” etc. So using such iconic names as Monroe, Hendricks and Hepburn is brilliant. When I invested in my first swimsuit, and wore it to my sea swims, I felt held, I felt elegant and I had so many compliments. One friend said it was like the swimwear equivalent of an evening gown.
What advice would you give to your younger self to help her develop a good relationship with her body?
This is tricky because I know younger Claudine wouldn’t listen to anybody! But I would want her to know that there is so much more to life than how you look. If people want you to be different: to look different, behave differently, have a different personality or anything else, then they’re not your people. But of course it’s hard to explain this to a child or teenager.
I see it now with my own children – especially my daughter. She’s not particularly concerned with how she looks (although she is more aware of this than my son). But she’s currently obsessed with a cartoon about fairies with super powers. All the characters appear stretched – they must be 10cm tall but 1cm wide. Tiny waists, big eyes, big eyelashes. I don’t want to ban her from watching this kind of content – and she needs to build a resilience to this kind of imagery and see it for what it is. But I make sure we have conversations regularly about how unrealistic and ridiculous those images are. And I try not to only compliment her on her looks – in that way that little girls are often described as ‘pretty’ whilst little boys are seen as ‘strong’. She’s great though - whenever I tell her she is beautiful or looks great she says ‘I know, mummy’. Long may that continue.
So I hope that with my own parenting as well as my coaching work, I’m helping to teach the next generation to accept who they are without changing to fit in with other people. Whilst most of the work I do is with women in their 30s and above, the messages filter down to their daughters or nieces, and I also work with teenage girls and go into schools to help young women learn that their looks are only a tiny part of what they have to offer the world.
There’s that brilliant quote by Brene Brown about belonging rather than fitting in. She says ‘belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else’. I’ve spent my life trying to fit in, changing myself to be like others and liked by others, and actually when you find the right people you will belong, and be accepted exactly as you are, and this helps immensely on the journey to fully and emphatically accepting yourself. And this is how the women in my body image coaching groups tell me they feel; that it is the only place they feel fully understood, supported and able to show their true selves.